The Abyss's Gaze
There’s something to that recurring theme in Star Trek episodes where a reality is built out of some bad novel or discarded piece of 20th century Americana. Star Trek forces us to confront pulp fiction and the design of V-Ger’s golden pack-ins, and to imagine what it would be like to be stuck in the world of a cheap paperback, where all that fluff is forced to make sense, where every plot-hole is stitched together. They don’t so much encourage us to take a second look at the creative and design choices in our world as they rub our noses in our sloppy design.
I once read a book in which the author explained trying not to experience any creative work without also setting aside time to properly consider and digest that work. Be it in gallery, theater, screen or paper, he wanted to keep his mind sharp, wring the last drops of critical pleasure from his free time, and to hold the art he interacted with to a higher standard. The idea was not just to judge the work, but to wrestle with it and all the things it conveyed — to think about how the work was made and in what context, to think about the context in which I received the work. As the book was written in the early 1980s, it also contained no small amount of glib and strident moralizing, but the project of maintaining mindfulness toward creative works stuck with me.
This is the sort of idea that gets me really excited and, a week or two later, exhausted. It also makes me the sort of person nobody really wants to talk to, and fewer people would want to live with.
Of course, like so many self-confident schemes of the late 20th Century, the author’s project of reflection ultimately had to be scaled back to something that wouldn’t drive the whole family nuts. I suppose I’m glad I finished the book and thought about those consequences before starting my own similar project. As with many things, it’s not that the project would be an unrewarding venture, but that there may be other associated hazards for which our adventurer ought to account.
What we play can change the way we approach our lives and the world around us, regardless of whether we pay attention. My initial approach to soccer was that I was dropped off there, through some combined parental motive to expose me to sports, sun and mud and to have someone else keep me out of trouble for an hour or two. Still, I learned.
I played soccer regularly for about a decade growing up. Like any other activity, playing soccer made some experiences less likely and others more probable. I didn’t have time for organized leagues of hockey or American football, but I did have an experience with a cultural mainstay of many cultures — a connection to other world that might have otherwise been hard to come by, growing up as I did in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Knowing how to approach a soccer ball, it turned out, was a sort of cultural passport.
Let’s be clear here: Playing soccer did not make me especially prone to kicking people. I don’t believe I’m significantly more likely to go on a kicking spree in a mall — though I suppose it’s more likely than a punching spree. I do, however, have an easier time running longer distances, so long as I’m chasing something. When I drop something, I have another chance or two to catch it with my knees or feet before it crashes on the floor. I don’t much mind running around on muddy grass in the wind and rain; I even enjoy that sensation. Also, my ankles ache with a frequency that one might expect of someone 20 years my elder.
Our experiences open doors. We can choose to go through those doors, to merely acknowledge them, or even to willfully yank the doors back shut before something weird comes through. It may well be that Mario taught me greater dexterity in my thumbs and coordination between my vision and hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of failed “save the princess” relationships from my younger years were in part informed by the practice of saving so many damsels in games. I have no idea to what extent my thoughts on mushrooms are informed by Mario.
I am quite certain that my love of pizza, beyond mere recognition of the everyday excellence of the food, is heavily informed by all the ways I ingested Ninja Turtles over the years.
Time was, a novel was judged in large part by the moral lesson it jammed down your throat in the final pages. The art and its critical theory have advanced beyond that, though, and we realize (once again) that a reader can grow meaningfully through reading tragedy, that playing as the bad guy doesn’t necessarily worsen you as a human being. Even poorly crafted works can yield some value for the audience, if we can stop and consider what makes them bad, what might make them better, or why they are bad. Simply put, even “bad” art can be good for you.
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. — from Beyond Good & Evil)
I was not the only high-schooler to scrawl Nietzsche quotes in my notebook. I try not to revisit my old sketch books too often — there’s too much arrogance, so much unflinching belief in things I have grown to distrust, so many clichés. Reviewing the leavings of my former self is an almost altogether unpleasant experience. But not everything in there is bad.
For instance, Nietzsche seems to remain relevant, if in new ways. Nietzsche’s short, aphoristic paragraphs (not to mention the alarming confidence and hyperbole of his style) would probably be right at home on Twitter. Then there’s the perennial truth that with which we engage also engages with us. It’s the sort of aphorism that shows up in Criminal Minds to make the show feel smart, but being a cliché does not make it untrue.
It would be easy to step from this thought to the assumption that the internet makes us dumb, mean or just callous, or that video games are training simulations breeding a generation of mass murderers. I don’t think I’ve been turned into an unfeeling hate machine or unthinking violence machine, or that soccer turned me into an unblinking kicking machine. Probably because I’m not a machine, though being made of gears, transistors and metal paneling would make it easier for people to paint me all one color.
No, despite cyberpunk predictions otherwise, I remain startlingly more human than machine, and humans are not good at holding a coat of paint. There are ways to get pigment to stick, though, especially if you can get it under our skin. And as with tattoos, it’s worth spending a few moments of consideration.
There’s reason enough to pay attention to what we’re exposing ourselves to, even if it only spends a moment in our mind between entering one ear and leaving the other. It’s worth knowing, just in case that trash threw some litter out the window as it sped through.